Friday, 1 March 2013

Sepia Saturday 166: Henrietta goes to Blackpool

Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnet and Kat Mortensen

My submission for this week's issue of Sepia Saturday has little to do with the themes suggested by the image prompt, I'm afraid, although I imagine it was taken at around the same time (and it does involve a dangerously long skirt). The caption for Lewis S. Hine's Paper Boxes, Binding Covers gives a rather broad date range of "ca. 1906-1938" but, judging from the frilled blouses and early bobbed hair styles, by my estimation it was taken during the Great War. I suspect it was part of Hine's documentation of the American Red Cross's relief work in Europe.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Henrietta Christina Payne, 19 August 1910
Postcard portrait by Y. Burns, The Studio, Victoria Pier, Blackpool
Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

This is one of three surviving portraits of my great-great-grandmother Henrietta Christina, and the only one to show her alone. It was taken in the summer of 1910 at the studio of Young Burns on Victoria Pier, Blackpool, presumably during a visit there with friends or family. I have written previously about her son and daughter-in-law Hallam and Sarah Payne's regular visits to Blackpool and other seaside resort towns such as Swanage, Bournemouth and Great Yarmouth, and it is quite possible that they took her there for a short holiday.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

The back of the photograph is a regular postcard format, with the photographer and studio location printed up the left hand edge. Young Burns (1863-1931) was the son of a Lancashire machine ganger who started off working as a solicitor's clerk in Oldham, but by 1901 had married and settled in his wife's home town of Blackpool, where he was working as an artist.

Image © and courtesy of James Morley & whatsthatpicture
Unidentified woman, c.1904-1909
Small format print by Burns & Ashton, Victoria Pier, Blackpool
Image © and courtesy of James Morley & whatsthatpicture

Jones (2004) shows Burns in partnership with Benjamin Ashton (formerly of 27 Keswick Road, Blackpool in 1901) as photographers with a studio on Victoria Pier, South Shore from 1904 until 1909. The following excerpt from a history of the southernmost of Blackpool's three piers, opened in 1893, in Wikipedia is illuminating:
Victoria Pier was considered to be more "upmarket" than North and Central piers, and at first provided little entertainment. Holidaymakers started visiting the South Shore in 1896 when a carousel was installed on the sand dunes. In 1902 the south entrance of the promenade was widened with the construction of the present promenade, and the pier entrance had to be moved back. In 1930 the pier was renamed South Pier.

Image © BFI Films National Archive & courtesy of YouTube
Entrance to Blackpool's Victoria Pier, 1904
Still image from Mitchel & Kenyon cinematograph
Image © British Film Industry National Archive & courtesy of YouTube

Burns and Ashton appear to have opened the studio shortly after the re-design of the Victoria pier's entrance, shown in this still from Mitchell & Kenyon's ground-breaking cinematograph of Blackpool in 1904. (N.B. click on the image above to get to the full clip on YouTube.) From 1909 to 1918, Burns operated the studio alone.

Image © and courtesy of Michael Brubaker
Herr Blomé's Berlin Meister Orchestra, c.1911
Image © and courtesy of Michael Brubaker & TempoSenzaTempo

In my pursuit of the circumstances surrounding Henrietta's visit to Victoria Pier, I came across several more portraits from this particular studio, including no less than three postcard format photos of Herr Blomé's Berlin Meister Orchestra from fellow Sepian and photo-sleuth extraordinaire Mike Brubaker. The postcard view shown above, probably taken c.1911, has the orchestra arranged on a board floor in front of a well-windowed wooden building, which appears to be identical with that appearing immediately inside the entrance to the Victoria Pier in the Mitchell & Kenyon still.

Victoria Pier, South Shore, Blackpool, 1905
Coloured photomechanical print postcard by unidentified publisher

Having a studio situated at the entrance of the pier made good business sense for a photographer, who would be well placed to catch the tourists as they arrived and departed, and to offer a memento of their visit. The ticket booths to the left and right of the wrought iron gates offered similar opportunities to peddlers of tourist memorabilia. Postcard racks provided by Boots Cash Chemists can be seen clearly displayed in the Mitchell and Kenyon film clip.

Victoria Pier, Blackpool, 1905
Coloured photomechanical print postcard by unknown publisher

Sadly this entrance no longer exists, having been superseded by a series of large gaudy frontages, which I wont bother to reproduce here.

Victoria Pier, Blackpool, 1907
Real Photo Series No. 48 postcard by unknown publisher

I found portraits showing several varieties of postcard design from Young Burns' studio, but none of them are accurately dated, so there is not yet an opportunity to date them purely by card design.

Image © and courtesy of delcampe.netImage © Gail Durbin/lovedaylemon and courtesy of FlickrImage © and courtesy of The Victorian Recreation Company

A feature which most of Burns' portraits have in common is that the subjects are, quite understandably, dressed for an outing - the array of hats is pretty impressive. Most also have the variable silvery-grey sheen covering darker areas, characteristic of many portraits from this era, and resulting from the migration of free silver radicals within the sensitised emulsion and their deposition as metallic silver particles on the surface. This renders such photographs very difficult to scan properly.

There are also a number of postcards of bands and orchestras, which must have been a common sight on the Blackpool waterfront, entertaining the crowds of pleasure seekers. This group portrait of Jan Hurst and his group of musicians must have been taken shortly after his appointment as conductor of the Victoria Pier Orchestra in 1919, and was possibly not take by Young Burns, although it shows his presumed pier entrance photographic studio in the background.

Before you head off to check out the other Sepia Saturday entries, have a look at the full Mitchel & Kenyon cinematograph clip above. It gives an atmospheric flavour of the times, including a wonderful variety of hats.


South Pier, Blackpool, from Wikipedia

Jones, Gillian (2004) Lancashire Professional Photographers 1840-1940, Watford, Herts: PhotoResearch, 203pp.

Reynolds, Brian & Lee, Michael J. (nd) Jan Hurst and his Orchestra, on Masters of Melody.


  1. Henrietta's photo resembles a refined portrait painting. It is wonderful that you have the grandmother with all those greats in front of it.

  2. I enjoyed joining Henrietta on her trip to Blackpool and seing all those people in their best promenading outfits. There was a series on UK TV about four years ago on the remarkable Mitchell and Kenyon films. Their subjects were often fascinated by the camera as can be seen in your still.

  3. Fascinating post Brett. I've found that using the 'Infrared' setting in the 'Black and White' image processing section of Photoshop is very effective with badly silvered postcards. Some more processing is always required after that though.

  4. I wish I could visit a pier like that today.

  5. THose old shots of the Blackpool piers are priceless. I was struck by how regal the ladies in the photos appeared.

  6. I always enjoy seeing these piers too, if only one existed some where near me like they were in the day. Why did they never replace them? All of your photos are delightful, happy folks too, and lovely hats as well!

  7. Thanks for the fashion history bit. Frilled blouses and early bobbed hair styles = the Great War. I like the Victoria Pier photo and wonder if it still stands today. The back of the postcard could tell a student of history loads of ideas for analysis.

  8. A terrific story, Brett. I have gained a great respect for these early photographers from your histories. They may have considered themselves entrepreneurs or sometimes artistes, but they became social historians by documenting people and ordinary life. Mr. Burns certainly saw a lot of characters on the pier. This story also adds to Herr Blome's little history too. I'll add a link back to your post along with an update on that one musician'name.

  9. Excellent post Brett.
    And thanks for the info re the 'silver sheen' - that explains why I had difficulty with some old photos I've scanned for a local genealogical society.

  10. A fine photographic start leading in to a fascinating post. There is a book/play/filmscript/opera waiting to be made about these seaside photographic studios : such a part of the world of the British working class in the early years of the twentieth century.

  11. The more I look at old photos I find the early 20th century a very fascinating period of history. Enjoyed the pier-tour, thanks.

  12. Recaptures a day at the seaside for our ancestors, very evocative, it must have required a lot of photographers for the number of people visiting. Love the contrasting block of 4 photos.

  13. Oh, the hats! Be still my heart! Fabulous post Brett!

  14. Very interesting. I wonder if any of my ancestors enjoyed similar outings. Wonderful hats too! I have some old photos that are high gloss and don't scan well. Frustrating.

  15. The pictures of the pier are so pretty! And the women are all very elegant!

  16. Very Interesting.I Know Blackpool ,but not its History from this period.seems like it already had the hustle&bustle I remember from my own first visits there in the 60s.I've got family living in Blackpool now....I shall be forwarding your link here to let them have a look!

  17. LD - She does seem a little too elegant to be visiting a pleasure resort, or at leat to be enjoying it. The photographer did her proud.

    Little Nell, Postcardy & Karen S. - I have yet to visit Blackpool, although I feel the best of the promenading is long gone. I borrowed the M+K video from a friend some time ago, but I should get a copy for myself.

    Howard - Thanks for the tip. I'll give that a try, but you know what they say about a sow's ear.

    Bob Scotney - Yes the women's outfits were very dignified, particularly their hats, not really matched by the men's flat caps, even though I like them.

    Hazel Ceej - Yes the pier still stands, although now called the South Pier, and looking very different from how it did in those postcards, as you can see from a visit via Google Streetview.

    Mike Brubaker & Alan - They were indeed all of that, and so much more. They all had their own families, and presumably lives away from the studio. I would one day like to read a decent biography of a portrait photographer, the man as opposed to just his profession. Much of the job was of course hard sell, hard graft and routine, but imagine the huge variety of people they met. Thanks for the link.

    Boobook - One source I read remarkably suggested carefully rubbing the silver particles off, but I would not recommend that.

    Monica T. - When I started this blog a few years ago, I rather neglected the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, concentrating instead on Victorian photographers, their photos and their subjects, so it's nice to redress that imbalance and learn so much myself at the same time.

    Joy - Yes, I think there were a huge number, both along the seashore frontage and scattered along the several blocks back from it, although I don't have a good handle on exactly how many.

    Teresa - One could have an entire blog dedicated only to Edwardian hats, I think - there probably is one :-)

    Kathy Morales - Outings to seaside resort towns such as Blackpool were made a lot easier, and accessible to the bulk of the population, with the advent of railways. I think the railway arrived in Blackpool in 1846 - the tourists, and photographers, soon followed.

    Eugenia - Indeed they are, and gone are the days when such elegance could be seen along the beach promenade. Nowadays it's reserved for the catwalk and glittering function, it seems.

    Tony - I think the hustle and bustle was already there long before the Edwardians, the Victorians managed to hustle pretty well too.

  18. Ah, to time travel in such a lovely location, with my digital camera,
    of course!!

    In the vid, toward the end, a lady seems to have lost an eye... Well, at least she had one left to admire the view.


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